Did the Pentagon just officially declare a new Cold War with both China and Russia while also committing to wage endless wars around the globe? Apparently, yes—that was the central message of the Trump administration’s newly released National Defense Strategy, which, as Andrew Bacevich noted, offers no strategy and isn’t about defense. More than anything else, the document is another salvo in the push for a massive and costly military buildup.
“We are facing,” the NDS declared, “increased global disorder…creating a security environment more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory.” That may read as correct to you, but the Pentagon isn’t talking about catastrophic climate change, debilitating inequality, or the destabilizing flows and misery of millions of displaced refugees.
No, the NDS focus is the threat of Cold War adversaries. As Defense Secretary Jim Mattis put it in presenting the document, “[W]e will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists that we are engaged in today, but Great Power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.”
China and Russia are described as “revisionist powers” posing a genuine threat to the world: “[They] want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions,” the NDS said.
Russia, a decrepit and aging petrostate, isn’t a model for anyone. Its truculence comes in no small part in reaction to our relentless push to extend NATO to its very borders, despite pledges not to do so. China, in contrast, is already a global economic power, offering a model of authoritarian, mercantilist state capitalism. US global corporations and our trade policies fueled its rise, helping it become the world’s manufacturing center. Its influence will inevitably expand; it has the money.
There are not military solutions to these issues, but nonetheless the NDS asserted that these two megapowers, along with Iran and North Korea, will seek to subvert us, using “corruption, predatory economic practices, propaganda, political subversion, proxies, and the threat or use of military force to change facts on the ground. Some are particularly adept at exploiting their economic relationships with many of our security partners.”
As if tackling two superpowers wasn’t enough, the Defense Department also plans to counter rogue regimes, “defeat terrorist threats to the United States, and consolidate our gains [sic] in Iraq and Afghanistan while moving to a more resource-sustainable approach.” The military will also sustain “favorable regional balances of power in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, the Middle East, and the Western Hemisphere,” and “address significant terrorist threats in Africa.”
Trump merely dusted off his hawkish bromides. Once more he scorned “artificial timelines” in Afghanistan and the “terrible Iran nuclear deal,” promised to keep Guantanamo, boasted about new sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela, and postured tough on North Korea.
Only hours before the speech, news broke that Victor Cha, Trump’s pick for ambassador to South Korea, would no longer be nominated for the job. Almost simultaneously, Cha published an op-ed in The Washington Post outlining why a preemptive “bloody nose” strike on North Korea would be incredibly dangerous. Widespread alarm about the Trump administration’s intentions followed, and was not quelled by lengthy sections of Trump’s speech that spent a surprising amount of time depicting North Korea as an unacceptable danger. Trump declared that “complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation.”
“Rivals like China and Russia” were mentioned only once and in passing. He called on Congress to “fully fund” the military and “rebuild” our nuclear arsenal without explaining why spending more on the military than the next eight countries combined isn’t enough. The president promised a government accountable to the American people, but his administration appears to be gearing up for new confrontations from the South China Sea to the Russian borders without offering Americans a clue about the risks involved.
This is the imperial view of a global power committed to defending “order” across the globe, a mission beyond the reach and the capacity of even the wealthiest nation and its allies. The NDS acknowledged the need for “difficult choices” to “prioritize what is most important,” but that is exactly what the document does not provide.
Instead, it called for a military force that, in “normal day to day operations,” can “deter aggression in three key regions—the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and Middle East; degrade terrorist and WMD threats; and defend U.S. interests from challenges below the level of armed conflict.” With the US Special Forces already chasing “terrorists” in countries across Africa, and the military tasked with policing space, air, and seas across the world, this is a recipe for permanent engagement.
The NDS also detailed the need to maintain the Pentagon’s “technological advantage” in everything from “advanced computing, “big data” analytics, artificial intelligence, autonomy, robotics, directed energy, hypersonics, and biotechnology.” This will require changes to “industry culture, investment sources, and protection across the National Security Innovation Base.” In other words, the Pentagon will drive America’s industrial policy.
Needless to say, this requires big bucks—a lot more than the Pentagon has been receiving. Failure to cough up the money, the NDS warned, will result in “decreasing U.S. global influence, eroding cohesion among allies and partners, and reduced access to markets,’” which will contribute to a “decline in our prosperity and standard of living.”
Notably absent from the document is any reckoning with the failure of our current course. The “prosperity and standard of living” for most Americans has already been declining, to the point that life expectancy is going down. Climate calamities are a real, present and rising danger.
Our war of choice in Iraq blew the lid off the Middle East. Afghanistan, our longest war, is in its 17th year, with no end—and no purpose—in sight. American troops, as Bacevich noted, have fought in more places over the course of this century than any country in history.
We’ve spent trillions of dollars killing uncounted thousands of people, rained bombs from drones on people in increasing numbers of countries, overthrown governments in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and dispatched Special Operations Forces to nearly three-fourths of the countries in the world (149 and counting). And yet, as the NDS argued, we face an ever-more threatening and dangerous world.
A true reckoning is long overdue. Trump campaigned as someone who would end our “stupid” wars, change our failed trade policies, and champion better relations with Russia. Those promises have evaporated even faster than his populist economic postures.
What we are left with is truly dangerous to our security. The military will be tasked with missions it cannot fulfill. It will get more money, but not nearly enough. Real security threats will continue to be ignored. Billions will be wasted on baroque weaponry, while vital domestic investments are starved. The nuclear arms race will be revived. American lives will be lost in wars that continue endlessly, with the United States unwilling to lose and unable to win. We will spend more and more on the Pentagon and find ourselves growing less and less secure. We desperately need a new real security strategy, and a revolt against endless war to give it traction.
Ed’s note: This post has been updated to reflect Trump’s State of the Union address.